Thursday, April 3, 2008

New Orleans Vignettes

1. Druids on Claiborne

They tell us to leave work early because the parades are coming. I do as I’m told. And yet, as I drive down Napoleon, I don’t see anything that would stop traffic. Large, exaggerated homes are decorated with purple, green, and gold ribbons, banners, and masks. Metallic beads from last week’s parades swing from oak trees as casually as Spanish moss tendrils, threatening to fall onto cars. Some vendors set up stands and carts stocked with feather boas, masks, jester hats and beads on the corner of St. Charles. Such sights are common to New Orleans any time of year, especially for those who live and work along the parades routes.

The one true sign of Carnival, of the week of nonstop parades and parties before Mardi Gras, is the police barricades lined up in the neutral ground and the litter— parade loot, napkins, beer cans, dacquiri cups— that sprinkles the grassy median like confetti. Another sign screams at me in the form of a siren just ahead.

The sirens of an NOPD motorcade are screaming and flashing on Claiborne. A cop stops drivers at the Napoleon intersection. My eyes grow a little large and I instinctively turn the radio down as if loud jazz will interfere with what’s to come. Other drivers around me are expressionless, unimpressed as dozens of parade floats crawl near us behind the entourage.

You didn’t leave early enough and now you’re stuck, you tell me when I call from the car. Oh well. It’s Carnival. Daily chores like getting to the bank, post office, and driving to and from work are just a tad too difficult. It’s much better to just resign yourself to slowing down, stopping, or joining in the fun.

Tractors nonchalantly pull the floats down Claiborne and turn down Napoleon right next to you. A hand painted sign tells you this is the Krewe of Druids parade. No one is on the floats yet— no beads, masks, bands, or dancers. It’s the skeleton of a good time slowly crawling towards the birthplace of the journey several blocks up Napoleon. Drivers next to you create text messages, fiddle with handbags, and talk to restless kids as a float with the bust of an enormous naked lady zooms by, followed by a float the size of a ship with a large pile of shit at the helm.

In some parts of the world, commuters tolerate cow crossings, sheep crossings, endless pedestrian traffic, bad weather conditions, Amish horse and buggies, funeral processions, emergency vehicles on the run, or even the various delays and complications that arise from war.

In New Orleans, drivers put up with potholes, flash floods, and debris in the street. They evacuate for hurricanes in cars packed with kids, pets, treasured belongings, and until recently, few cares. Still, the passing of a parade is the only thing that really stops traffic New Orleans; it’s the only nuisance locals have learned to love to expect, accommodate, and consider as a necessary component of living a big easy life.

2. Saturday afternoon at the Clover Grill

We are driving around the French Quarter on an early afternoon Saturday. The windows are rolled down, our favorite jazz station is on the radio, and the backseat is filled with purchases from the local arts market. Natives to New York and New Jersey, we can’t believe this kind of spring is possible in February.

Haz suggests we stop for lunch at a famous local spot, The Clover Grill, located just up the road from the crowds on Bourbon. The inside of the place is an homage to chrome— chrome counters, chairs, and table tops. The floors are tiled, the paint on the windows is authentically peeling, and the authentically ancient jukebox actually plays Beyonce, Whitney Houston, and Rihanna.

The mostly male staff sing and dance behind the counter. The menu encourages us to dance also, as long as it’s not on the tables. It actually reads: “Dancing in the aisles only. Please keep off the tables.” Another menu gem reads: “Please keep your hands on top of the table. No talking to yourself.” A large blackboard yells, “Try one of our weanies!” in pink and yellow chalk. Slowly I’m catching on to the not-so hidden vibe of this place. The menu also exclaims that “our weanies” are made of “100% real beef.”

It’s the kind of place where you expect to find lots of tourists ordering “New OrLEENS poor boys” not a bunch of local gay men having a good time. Tourists in horse and carriages roll down Bourbon taking pictures of us, sitting in the Clover Grill window, eating tuna sandwiches and fries. Later, as our waiter collects our dishes, he asks me if I’m sure I don’t want “those pickles.”

“No pickles for me, not today,” I smile.

“I just have to ask,” he quips, trotting back to the counter where his colleague is rocking out to Patty La Belle next to a jar of free condoms.

1. He’s not all trombone and he’s not short

It’s 11:30 at night, on a warm Saturday in March, a night filled with a wind just strong enough to ruffle palm fronds and feathers of St. Patrick’s revelers somewhere.

We are standing, sipping some cold drink, listening to a local DJ spin tunes that range from Fats Domino to Nelly. We are standing here, among locals, tourists, and teachers. Your school’s principal, special education staff, and guidance counselor are here with their spouses. Some are dancing. I teach second grade and I am here. Some individuals across the room are also teachers, across town. We are all tired, waiting. Waiting.

Rebirth comes on just before midnight- all sousaphones, sax, trumpet, and drum. We shimmy, shake, groove, move, stomp, and yell. You and I have seen this band a dozen times but the thrill never quits. Truly, they were the first New Orleans band I ever heard. I first heard them 6 days before Katrina and the Waves took over the city. That was at the Maple Leaf Bar. Now we’re at the Howlin’ Wolf. Downtown.

Rebirth finishes. We’re all sweaty, laughing, and thirsty for another one. But the show isn’t over. Not at 1 a.m. A certain fellow is the main feature, is the new mister of jazz here in the jazz city. He’s not all trombone and he’s not short, but his name is Trombone Shorty. His band is Orleans Avenue, a street located a few blocks from ours.

Trombone, whose real name is Troy Andrews, nonchalantly walks in, tall, slender, and unsuspecting in a suit during the Rebirth performance. You see him first, then point him out. This is always how it is in New Orleans- the local musicians living and hanging with the local non-musicians. Musicians live in rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, black, white, mixed neighborhoods. There is no elite musician class here.

(I have a theory about this. It’s because everyone is some kind of musician here- an individual that appreciates the presence and purpose of a thumping bass drum, bellowing trombone, screeching trumpet, or fidgety fiddle. You can’t live here and not like music. It’s like being Christian and not celebrating Christmas.)

Trombone comes on stage full of vocals, trombone, trumpet, and eventually drum. His music is jazzy, seasoned with R-&-B and hip-hop, flavored with rock. I don’t remember much about it because when he plays I’m in the music, inside the horn, my mind a mere reflection of the instrument I am. I do remember that the show featured a second line procession (a local tradition in which Shorty and his band lead a line of dancers and revelers through a crowd of dancers and revelers). I also remember being on stage.

Shorty invited the entire crowd to join the performance as the hour passed 2. We squished and shimmied on stage, perilously close to the edge, close enough to see sweat on his face. We stayed through a half dozen encores. One encore featured Shorty’s signature trilling on the trombone and an note that lasted much longer than a Superbowl commercial break.

(All this hooplah led me to recall the last time we saw Shorty perform— at the First Baptist Church on Canal. It was Christmas, and the sold out crowd of churchgoers and non-churchgoers was treated to a performance in which the Trombone man played popular holiday tunes with his signature Orleans band, with local legend Irvin Mayfield, and, perhaps most surprisingly, with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ray Nagin, our city mayor who became internationally famous during Katrina, most notably for his angry rant about governmental failure, was there. City Council member Jackie Clarkson and Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landreau were there. It was a family affair, a distinctly New Orleans affair. In a church, with blacks and whites. People brought together by music.

The stage dancing and second line procession also made me think of a memorable Rebirth concert at Tipitina’s last May. We were there with your Principal and a fellow teacher you call “twin.” Rebirth’s show lasted well past 2 a.m. and a second line led by Rebirth brought the entire crowd into the street— onto residential, Uptown Napoleon, not far from the banks of the Mississippi. Rebirth played their loud horns, drums, and sousaphones while the crowd danced, clapped, laughed, and sang. We moved in front of houses where families were sleeping. We yelled and cheered in the neutral ground— the grassy median dividing Napoleon—once the music stopped. Nobody complained. It’s all very expected here.)

Our night at the Howlin’ Wolf ended somewhere before three, after you magically won a raffle that earned us a pile of brass band CDs. The proceeds of the night went to local schools to buy young students instruments. We saw some of these youngsters play Rebirth tunes as an opening act before the evening truly began. These talented kids, the nervous kids, the kids who are cautious about playing such locally necessary rhythms, the ones who get more kicks from trombones and saxophones than video games— it’s up to them to keep it like this. To keep New Orleans musical in the sense that no other place is. And us? We need to support them as best we can.